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The sinister, violent messaging at the heart of Netflix's 'Indian Matchmaking'

What could possibly be so wrong with a quirky, pushy matchmaking auntie and a few harmless stereotypes?
Photo illustration: Stills from the Netflix series \"Indian Matchmaking\" interspersed with an image of Narendra Modi speaking and patches of different skin tones.
How a Netflix series typifies the most harmful aspects of India's oppressive government, from rampant sexism to erasure of minorities.MSNBC / Getty Images; Netflix

Indian Matchmaking,” whose second season dropped Aug. 10 on Netflix, has perfectly tapped in to an array of stereotypes about Indian culture, all while billing itself as “authentically Indian.” Perhaps that’s why it’s held its spot in the top 10 most-watched shows in the U.S since its release.

So, what could possibly be so wrong with a quirky, pushy matchmaking auntie and a few harmless stereotypes?

The show’s regressive representation of Indianness is typified in everything from the blatant sexism with which Sima Auntie treats her clients to its mostly Hindu cast.

While “Indian Matchmaking” is branded as a quaint, wholesome show, which innocuously celebrates "Indian culture,” it instead reinforces Hindu supremacy, toxic masculinity, sexism, casteism, northern domination, white supremacy and the erasure of minorities (such as Muslims and dalits) from Indian identity. If we look beyond the show’s shiny fetishization of a colorful culture that tickles and amuses Western viewers, we can actually see something far more sinister. And it is dangerous to confuse these world views as benign and charming — and as inextricably Indian — when they are, in fact, carefully manufactured and designed to oppress minorities and women.

To start, there is the small, inconvenient matter of the show — which follows the journey of five new cast members (and a few old ones) while they search for spouses with the help of a matchmaker (“Sima from Mumbai”) — that both emblematizes and reinforces the same social forces that undergird the fascistic tendencies of the governing ruling party, the Bharatiya Janata Party and it’s ultra-right wing grassroots arm, the RSS.

It’s not that deep, you might say? Well, let’s break it down. The show’s regressive representation of Indianness is typified in everything from the blatant sexism with which Sima Auntie treats her clients to its mostly Hindu cast. This version of Indian culture forms the perfect and necessary basis for India’s contemporary brand of authoritarianism: chauvinistic and synonymous with upper-caste Hindus from northern India, to the exclusion of ethno-religious minorities.

The institution of arranged marriages in India — and around the world — was designed to preserve existing power structures, keeping upper-caste and wealthy families in the same pool and, conversely, keeping the poor out. To that point, Sima Auntie, the matchmaker (with an impressively poor success rate) and focal point of the show, works with her five new clients this season, four of whom are Hindu (none of them are from lower castes) and only one of whom is Sikh.

To those familiar with the culture, the show is rife with coded language to that effect. “I think it’s just cool to see like a lot of the same people, you know, from the same communities that I’m from, like, just out here looking to meet someone,” Avinash, the cousin of Aparna (from season one), says at a mixer hosted for Sima Auntie. Those familiar with South Asian coded language would immediately know how to interpret “same communities.” And, of course, the show does not feature or make mention of any Muslims, which account for around 15% of India’s population.

The BJP has rewritten the story of India through a Hindu nationalist lens, analogous to the Christian nationalism espoused by Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene and like-minded American politicians on the right.

For context, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have been accused of fascist tendencies and ideology for years. Modi was not even allowed to visit the United States prior to becoming prime minister because he had been accused of human rights violations in his capacity as chief minister of Gujarat, after overseeing Hindu riots that killed around a thousand Muslims in 2002, some of whom were hacked to death and burned. That all changed when Modi became prime minister, at which point the U.S. could not very well exclude the leader of one of its so-called strongest allies and the “largest democracy.”

Using revisionist history and violence, the BJP has rewritten the story of India through a Hindu nationalist lens, whereby Muslims are deemed un-Indian and therefore unwelcome, analogous to the Christian nationalism espoused by Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene and like-minded American politicians on the right.

Any authoritarianism worth its salt buttresses existing power structures, and the BJP has not fallen short. Its superstructures support colorism, India’s version of white supremacy, whereby fair-skinned Indians with European features are lauded as embodying ideal beauty standards. Numerous studies have concluded that having fair skin, especially for women, functions as a kind of currency that can make it more likely to find employment or get married. “In India, colorism is a customary practice perpetuated by cultural beliefs and values, social institutions, and the media,” a study in Advances in Developing Human Resources reported in 2015. “Within the South Asian community, this has a long history with ties to the caste system and social hierarchies,” Alisia (Giac-Thao) Tran, author of another study on colorism, published by Cultural Diversity and Ethnic Minority Psychology in 2016, told the BBC. Colorism can also have devastating effects on mental health.

At one point in "Indian Matchmaking," Akshay, one of Sima Auntie’s clients, asks his astrologer to tell him of all the good things coming his way to increase his confidence while searching for a mate. “You’ll get married to a very good girl,” the astrologer, Navnath Patil, responds. Yes, she’ll be intelligent, but more important, “she will have a round face, fair, just like the moon.”

Then there’s casteism, in which upper-caste Hindus continue to hold the most power in pretty much every realm, from industry to politics, a system that many anti-caste activists have accused the BJP of reinforcing. As mentioned, none of the characters on “Indian Matchmaking” are from lower castes, contributing to the cultural and political erasure of lower castes, which have been historically oppressed and exploited.

Surendra Singh, a BJP member of the legislative assembly, said in 2020 that rape could only be stopped if parents “instill good values in their young daughters.”

And, lastly, there is the rampant sexism and chauvinism of the BJP, which has produced and supported outrageously regressive notions of gender. Surendra Singh, a BJP member of the legislative assembly, said in 2020 that rape could only be stopped if parents “instill good values in their young daughters.” When meeting her clients, sexism and chauvinism flows out of Sima Auntie as seamlessly as chai from a warm pot. She fawns over her male clients, who present long lists of “biodata” (or criteria) they’re looking for in partners, describing them as “good boys” and “flexible.”

“I think Arshneel is a very nice guy and a very down to earth, soft-spoken, very sweet, and by the face, we can, I mean, judge that he’s a very cute and, uh, very flexible boy,” Sima Auntie says in episode four. Conversely, she describes her female clients with equally long lists of biodata as difficult and inflexible. Later in the episode, when another one of her clients, Viral, says she wants physical attraction in her match, Sima Auntie snaps back, “So, Viral, don’t you think you’re superficial?”

While the second season of the show has made meager attempts to course-correct after critics accused the first season of being problematic (for example, Sima Auntie is less quick to praise women for their fairness, even if the show’s astrologer can’t help himself), the show still finds itself rooted in the very regressive ideologies that have led to and support fascistic tendencies and the concomitant violent cultural transformation in India.

The political project of rewriting a nation’s history can take many forms. More recently, we have found explicit attempts in the U.S., from the nonsensical fight against critical race theory to book banning. But it is the softer, more subtle initiatives — perhaps in the form of a seemingly harmless and fun TV show about finding love — that can be far more pernicious. They are harder to identify and therefore object to, and, very often, we don’t even know when they’re happening.